Thursday, May 05, 2005

On the librarian shortage, and while I am at it, some thoughts

In looking over the Bloglines feed I have set up, I came across Meredith Farka's blog entry about a recent article published in Library Journal regarding the mythical shortage of librarians. Her entry provides a link to the article itself as well as some comments, so feel free to go take a look. As I read over her note, and I then read the article itself, several thoughts came to mind, especially since I recently went through the gauntlet of trying to find a librarian job. Ms. Farkas does mention the shortage of mentors that aspiring librarians often face, which was what prompted me to start thinking and writing.

I should count myself as one of the lucky few. For one, I do have a job and a pretty good one at that (though not perfect, but then again, I am good). I also had a librarian serve as a mentor in an informal way during the time that I was job hunting, and to her I owe a debt of gratitude that I can only hope to repay over time by being a good librarian and maybe someday doing what she did for me for someone else. One of the things that my mentor told me as I was applying for jobs was that it was likely that I was competing for jobs not so much with other recent or soon to be graduates but with librarians already in the field who were looking to do a lateral move. I have to admit that for a moment I wondered about this, why would a highly skilled librarian in an established position wish to make what would basically be a lateral move, namely not moving up, but sideways in terms of career? Of course, I reached the conclusion there could be a myriad of reasons, some of which might be interesting to explore, maybe a small research study even? For a very brief moment, and I mean brief, it was a bit good for the ego to know that I was in the same league with those veterans. However, that brief puff of illusion vanished soon as I saw that in reality that meant that the odds were heavily against me in terms of finding a job. That I am where I am now is the result of a grueling experience that often tested my resolve and even made me wonder if it was all worth it. Maybe someday I will write details of my job search from the highs to the lows and in between, but back to the topic at hand. At any rate, I do have to agree with the authors of the Library Journal article and ask why are so many jobs that are clearly entry-level going to those with substantial careers already under their belts?

In my case, for the type of position I was looking for, an Instruction and/or Information Literacy Librarian, I had other experiences to compensate for the lack of the seemingly obssesive requirement of three to five years of professional experience. I was a school teacher, and I was also an adjunct college instructor, so I had a lot of teaching experience, which made me desirable for the type of position I was looking for. The fact I had an a second master's degree, and postmaster's work added to my market value as well as the fact that I had worked in libraries both before and during my time in library school. I should note that I would be what the article describes as a career changer, and even though I am 35 now, I am as enthusiastic as any 25 year old. To be honest, I tend to resent a bit being in the upper borderline of NextGen since I can see that view as well as the view of the older veterans. Sometimes I wish I could do without the label, but the point is I know what it is like to compete with the other NextGen's. And while we are at it, we should note that those like me are probably more common than much of the literature gives us credit for. All I had to do was look at my classmates, many of whom were former elementary teachers, maybe another high school one, a couple middle school veterans, business people, salespersons, and even a lawyer. Yet, people who bring such diverse experiences are often treated like they have never held a job before because of the obssession with three to five years of "professional work." In my case, this was a mixed blessing. Some places wanted to talk to me right away because I had experience as an educator; others would not even look at my resume.

I did get a number of phone interviews and a good share of campus interviews, so again, Lady Luck (along with a lot of hard work on my part) smiled on me somewhat. I got a lot of rejections for jobs that can be labeled as nothing else than entry level. In some cases, the jobs were so basic I wondered what exactly were they looking for if I was not good enough to man their reference desk as a "generic" reference librarian. By this I mean exactly that, the job advertised for a generalist reference librarian with some collection development, not even mention of instruction. The type of job most students coming out of library school with minimal work experience could likely do. I remember my mentor wonderered about this as well. As I mentioned, I had quite an experience in my job hunt, and I applied all over. I had the good luck I was able to move if I needed to, which I did. I know many good librarians are not working due to the geographical restrictions.

One statement that concerned me, and I think it should concern anyone who reads the article and Ms. Farkas' blog entry, is the one the authors of the article make about the threat to the profession:

"The evidence strongly suggests that new librarians are neither sought nor considered for even entry-level librarian positions. The evidence also suggests that the jobs that new professionals need to gain vital experience are the very jobs being cut or greatly reduced. This population is being squeezed from both sides. They cannot find viable jobs to apply for nor can they get hired when they do apply. The threat to librarianship is clear: many qualified individuals will abandon the profession if the situation does not improve."

The LJ article also links to another article detailing the trend to hire PhD's as subject specialists without a library degree. During my search, I recall seeing a fair number of advertisements for this type of non-MLS librarian posts. Usually the ads asked for someone with a doctorate in a particular subject field, or what they would often call "equivalent experience."

It reminds me of some readings I did while working on my other graduate degree about how community colleges were getting more picky about hiring faculty given the excess of Humanities Ph.D's; they could afford to not hire the usual people with just a master's degree. Similar situations it seems, and it seems while there has been some mentions of both fields problems with the job market, no concerted connections have been made. I tend to be a bit more conscious I think because while I had my Modern Language Association Membership, I always read the annual Profession issue they published with its reports on the dismal state of the job market in English and Foreign Languages. I am very familiar overall with the situation of Humanities doctoral graduates, not only from knowing some personally, but because I almost became one myself. I left a doctoral program to pursue library school, a decision I never regretted. In part, I did it for the slightly better odds of being employed, in part because I fell in love with librarianship while working in one. There is another story I may have to tell someday, but for now, suffice it to say I can be very sympathetic to those folks. While I am on this topic, I think we should be adding more content based coursework to the library school curriculum. IN order to be subject specialists, we need to know the subjects. While obtaining such knowledge from other degrees is good, there are principles of librarianship you do not learn in that other degree. I managed to get a few good courses, but only because my timing was right since the courses were not taught regularly. For instance, the course on Readers' Advisory was taught my last semester there. The person who taught it left, and so the course has not been offered again.

As for what is clearly the gutting of professional librarian jobs in public libraries in favor of cheap paraprofessionals working part time, it is just shameful. You get what you pay for. I have a healthy respect for the paraprofessionals (paralibrarians, whatever you wish to call them, I wish they had a better label), but such breaking down of professional positions demeans the profession as well as the work of the paraprofessionals who support the professionals.

The reading did raise a good question regarding expectations of having work experience. This is a given, and I cannot emphasize it enough. I am sure most job seekers cannot emphasize it enough either. I got my practical knowledge working in a library. Library school coursework, with a couple of good exceptions, was mostly very theoretical. I am learning so much now that I am in the field, I could likely go back and teach a thing or two. But I am not ready for that, not yet anyhow. There is too much to learn and do for me here.

A short note on academic librarianship, which is my area. I am in a position where I am classified as professional staff, but I could have just as easily (ok, maybe not as easy, but bear with me) ended up in a faculty classified position. This type of position usually requires a person to work towards tenure, and for the most part, that means the old "publish or perish." This concept is rarely mentioned in library school, not in the classes, not in the workplaces, and not even in the career advising there may be available. As a result, writing for scholarly publication or conferences is not taught or broached at all, and this is a serious disservice to those who may be considering a career in academic librarianship. I mention in part because I found it surprising that nowhere in my library school program this was mentioned. The only reason I am comfortable with academic writing is because I have done some myself. I have presented at conferences, and I have a small publication credit. I learned this in my graduate program in English. I mentioned this need around my library school a few times, and other than a shrug here and some indifference there, nothing really was done. We need to work on this. For academic librarian jobs, very often they do expect that you know this already. I think I was able to interview for some of those jobs precisely because I had a curriculum vitae with academic writing experience. And yes, I do have a cv, as well as a resume, another little distinction that is not always taught. How do I know? From the few classmates of mine that came to me asking what the heck was a cv? When I told them what it was and why they were asking for it, I got a few blank looks. On the other hand, I also had classmates with cv's that could put many a college professor to shame. Again, proof that we librarians are a very diverse group of talented people. I just hope those doing the hiring don't make the threat come true and force these people to leave the profession.

Finally, from the article: "To paraphrase one new professional, librarianship is a profession that focuses obsessively on past accomplishments and not on future potential." I hate to agree, but this seems to be true. My experience in searching, for one, tends to confirm it. Maybe it's time those doing the hiring got over themselves and opened their minds to the possibilities and potential of the best candidates, not just the "experienced" ones. Nothing wrong with experience, but a bit of potential can go a long way as well.

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